At the US National Restaurant Association Show last week, experts from Technomic offered advice on how to best tailor a menu to encompass trending flavours and combinations and appeal to consumers’ desire to try new things when dining out. Ultimately, the conclusion was that menu innovation doesn’t require a huge menu overhaul if new options are introduced in a strategic way.
Technomic’s Dave Henkes and Lizzy Freier noted, per SmartBrief, that the average number of items on restaurant menus has been steadily declining for the past several years, and dropped notably during the heart of the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. The key context there, of course, was dine-in restrictions and closures and a shifted focus towards off-premises consumption in tandem with the beginnings of a labour crunch.
However, Henkes noted that while menu size overall has been shrinking, the number of limited-time offerings has grown by 31 per cent between 2017 and 2021. That’s in line with the fact that 42 per cent of consumers are more likely to try a new or unique flavour from a restaurant than when cooking at home, and consumers order new or unique items from restaurants more than 25 per cent of the time, he added.
Henkes and Freier, who is Technomic’s Director of Menu Research & Insights, shared examples of how restaurants are getting creative with ingredients and preparations to update their menus, writes SmartBrief‘s Tricia Contreras.
They organized these best practices into the 5 Ps of menu innovation:
Putting new dishes on the menu doesn’t have to mean adding an array of new ingredients. Instead, getting creative with new flavours or culinary mashups can entice diners to try something new, Freier said.
Supply chain issues are forcing many restaurants to think outside the box when it comes to how they prepare ingredients, Henkes said. Giving a new or unusual treatment to a familiar ingredient can turn it into something new and noteworthy, such as charring vegetables rather than steaming. In addition, some methods can provide a two-pronged approach, bringing a new culinary experience and also extending shelf life, such as pickling, fermenting or preserving.
Proteins and plants
The pandemic and its effects on the industry have led many restaurants to try out new proteins on menus, Freier added. When faced with a shortage of chicken wings, for example, Wingstop pivoted to using chicken thighs, even going as far as launching its virtual Thighstop brand. Other restaurants are also swapping out proteins based on what’s available – trying out more affordable or obtainable cuts or substituting meats.
Another way to put a new spin on classic items is to add a personalization option, which can make dishes more accessible for picky or apprehensive customers and can also create a feeling of exclusivity. Special items that are only available via a restaurant’s app or loyalty program create an “impetus for consumers to come back to that app and see what’s new,” Henkes said.
Finally, a key element of menu innovation is staying on top of trends. Technomic predicts that salt – perhaps the most basic of culinary tools – will go beyond a basic seasoning by taking centre stage in foods. Think salt-cured fish and naturally salty ingredients like purslane and seaweed.